First of all, congratulations on your baby(s)! Or to your interested party to whom you might send this article if you assessed they will benefit from the tips. I add plurality because twins are often times born early at a low birth weight, requiring a NICU stay. “Stay”, like at a hotel with special accommodations. Well, it basically is. Most babies born under 5 1/2 lbs experience this very exclusive and highly luxurious stay.
My twin boys were born at 34 weeks gestation and spent 2 weeks in the NICU. The scariest part was the beginning as it was unknown, unchartered territory. But with familiarity, education, and communication, came an outcome I did not expect.
Here are 5 helpful things to keep in mind to ease you or your interested party’s anxiety throughout this difficult process if you or someone you know ends up being a NICU mom:
1. Do Not Compare Your Baby(s) to Other babies at the NICU
…which is tempting and may feel natural to do. But every newborn at the NICU is different. They can range from micro-preemies born at 1 lb (or less) with a host of medical issues requiring extensive treatment, to generally healthy and stable babies slightly under 5 1/2 lbs with no major accompanying medical issues. The length of stay can also range from several hours, to many months. You can imagine the wide differences in medical need just based on that!
The other babies may be better or worse off than your baby(s), producing feelings of either pity or envy. This is natural, but unproductive for the duration of your NICU mom status. Each baby has their own trajectory and treatment, so focus on yours. If you have two in the NICU, try to not compare them to each other! This can be especially difficult, but they are two separate individuals with their own identities and trajectories as well.
The situation with my twins left me with a quite magical story I will take with me forever, and one I will share with you now. From the beginning, it seemed as though one baby would surely be discharged sooner than the other; their treatment team estimated about a week apart. So we mentally and physically began preparing for just that; reassuring ourselves we will get used to caring for one baby at home after which we will welcome his brother.
However, as the days progressed, the medical needs of my babies grew closer and closer together and the gap between their different discharge dates was narrowing. Doctors and nurses played the music to any parents’ ears; how our other baby was catching up quickly.
Still, the day came where we were told one of our babies, and not the other, will be ready for discharge in two days, he just needed a bit more observation. But when the day came, we got the call early that morning saying that he is not ready after all! Why? Well, when they tested how he slept in a regular isolette and not the temperature-regulated incubator, he was not able to regulate his own temperature well enough. We laughed and promptly interpreted this as a clear message from him, “I’m not going anywhere without my brother!” and so he jeapordized his own discharge by getting “cold”. This will be our fixed narrative for eternity. Fast forward another several days, and they were both being discharged together.
Try to also not to compare your early motherhood experience with your mom friends or other moms whose newborns went home with the mom right away and/or without a NICU stay. It will look completely different and you may feel abnormal in your experience, depressed, and more sad. Focus on getting comfortable in your experience for what it is. It’s not generally uncommon, but you may be the only one in your group of friends.
If you feel the need to connect, the Pump room at NICUs are filled with other NICU moms or you can find online NICU mom support groups to normalize your experience. However, be careful with other NICU moms; might be extra difficult for a vulnerable mom of a 2 lber with serious medical issues to hear about your healthy 5 lber ready to be discharged soon.
2. Your Baby(s) Are in Good Care, and 24/7!
You may have certain feelings about your baby not coming home with you right away, or you may be in the hospital yourself recovering from a C section or another medical condition. But keep in mind that your baby(s) in the NICU are being looked after 24/7 by nurses and doctors. They are getting the care that you would not be able to provide them at home.
At least for now. Remind yourself during melancholy moments that your baby(s) arent in the NICU for fun, but for medical intervention so they can reach a point where they can function well outside the NICU.
3. Nurses and Doctors are your Friends
Take the time your baby(s) are in the NICU to pick the brains of the nurses and doctors, and let them guide you! You are spending hours there anyway breastfeeding, pumping, or just time with your baby(s), so take the time to observe the nurses. See their techniques and the products they are using. And always thank them for working hard taking care of your precious baby(s). I remember feeling impressed how comfortable they appeared caring for my babies, spinning them around with one finger when they were so little and fragile. At a time when I was still afraid to even hold them. They paved the way for me.
4. Ask Questions, Get Information!
The mom has full rights to ask as many questions as they need! To get updates on your baby(s) progression in height, weight, and any other medical issues they are dealing with. Usually nurses change shift every 12 hours and the baby is seen by the perinatologist each morning. Find out the schedule and know when to call or appear there to speak with the doctor! Prepare questions. Keep the communication open. You want to know exactly what is going on to best prepare for their discharge. Make sure you know which specialists your baby(s) are to follow-up with and when!
5. You Just Might Grow Attached
This is the meat of the article. I sure did not expect to grow psychologically attached to my babies being in the NICU, but I did. Especially after my initial feelings of shock and worry for them to be sent there in the first place; but it happened. I fantasized for them to stay longer which was rooted in my fear that I wont be able to provide the same level of care at home! I spewed jokes about having them stay there about a year, be in perfect shape, then come home to the rookie parents.
And depending how long your baby(s) end up staying there, it might happen to you too. This also depends on the mental and physical state you are in- are post partum depression symptoms kicking in? Are you in physical pain recovering from a C-Section? Maybe both, and more.
You see that your baby is under care 24/7 and the care does not stop when you are not there. Even feedings can be done without your presence. Although you might want to be there for as many feedings as possible to bond with, and feed your baby yourself. But it is not always possible depending whether you are still in the hospital or home already. Maybe you live far and cant make it there all day every day, or maybe you sleep in the NICU parent area and spend all your time there. Every mom will do this differently.
But the point is, their basic needs will be taken care of whether you are there or not.
The nurses do their job robotically. Moms can take breaks and have down time, although that may come with feelings of guilt. After some time, the idea of taking the baby(s) home becomes scary because you will have no more ability to just take a break where a nurse will do the job…the real pressure is on to care for them and keep them alive!
Do not worry. There is set discharge criteria babies are to meet before they are discharged so they should be in good health by the time that happens.
One of my babies was born smaller and appeared fragile, so for the first few days I got the thought into my mind that he is still too small for me to hold, where I was already holding my other baby. So I didnt hold him during my visits to the NICU and only looked at him like an exhibit through the glass of the incubator. Ahh, the incubator. The little box of all that is safe and protected in the world.
One of the nurses who I will never forget eventually gave me some tough love and said, ” He is strong that one, a fighter! Dont treat him like hes different. He’s so good, that one. He really tries. Hold your baby!” And then she passed him to me to hold for the first time. I will always be grateful to her because she recognized that I needed that push.
Author: Aleksandra Gold, LCSW